Dr. Yousuke Usui

Zen & Be-zen, their role against modern day stagnations

“Beer served in a Bizen ware definitely tastes better, but only the first serving!” said one famous Bizen artist. It was somewhat of a disappointment for me as the statement came from a Bizen artist, when the functional excellence of Bizen ware is widely gaining global recognition. I do not drink beer. I have never had a glass of beer in my whole life. I have been even saying, “I bet a Million yen you can not make me drink a beer.” So I can not prove or disprove the Bizen beer enhancement effect, but Eureka!, an idea for an experiment flashed in my mind.

In the month of May, my annual routine is to throw iris in vases around the house, followed by hydrangea. However, this is not really a simple process. The reason is that hydrangea is a poor drinker champion among all flowers, making displays disappointing. The western hydrangea is really the improved specie of the Japanese ‘otakusa’ so named after his Japanese wife by Dr. Sibold who introduced the flower in Europe. Improved hydrangea flowers are now being imported back to Japan. The imported version has stronger stems and it seems to stay healthy longer than the classical Japanese plant. Blooming is more expressive, too.

My point here is that the life of a cut flower does vary by vase. In a contest between a glazed vase such as Imari and non-glazed Bizen, the winner usually is the non-glazed ware by a wide margin The reason is in the inner surface of Bizen which is rough with many minute air pockets and has much larger area, while Imari ware has very smooth hard baked surface. It is considered that the difference in surface area has an impact in flower life.
My thesis is based on an assumption that water in a pool becomes stale but ocean water never spoils.I apply the concept to Bizen ware and want to call it, Ocean Water Effect of Bizen. The experiment is to test the life of classical Japanese and improved western hydrangea.

Since old days, people have been scorching the stem bottom or throwing a copper coin in the vase to lengthen flower life. I feel sorry for the burn but you all know that either of these tricks do little to longevity.

Let us recall the statement by the Bizen artist mentioned in the beginning of this essay. From his words I concluded that after the first beer the inner surface is coated by some sort of fat or whatever, neutralizing the Ocean Water Effect. Here now is my experiment to test the Ocean Water hypothesis.
Before dropping cut hydrangea stems of two types, one Japanese and one imported, I took our a brisk brush and a bottle of dish washer detergent and thoroughly cleaned the inside of vases. I then threw in half wilted stems. Lo and behold. The result was clearly visible as both flowers revived equally.

The experiment directed my attention to many stagnations in our society. There are social issues to be resolved by surface cleaning. The story of Ocean Water Effect hopefully livens up conversation over beer with fresh back up mugs on stand by.

Fortunately we are seeing new movement to clear the surface coating in the Bizen ware community. I wish to direct your attention to young artists who are working hard to remove the dark cloud over Bizen. They are the two artists who in many occasions have been promoting the potential value of Bizen ware for future. Tadashi Hirakwa and Yukiko Akai are their names.

On inivtaiton by the Texas Christian University, they built a Japanese medieval kiln on American soil. The product of American clay with American air and water was without a doubt a Bizen ware. Their focused hard work with a strong belief in Zen value brought about an excitement equally shared by all and a new friendship was born. A new universe created with the earth and Japanese pottery technique was staged, as and exhibiton titled as “Zen & Be-zen”, at the study-library garden of the Sogenji, a family temple for the Ikeda clan, widely known for just feudal rule and high level support for art and literacy. I believe the “Zen & Be-zen” exhibition was an attempt to shed light on lost coatings of present day art world and to inspire a way out to a new universe as shown by Bizen ware fired by Zen Buddhism philosophy.

Yosuke Usui
Director, Bizen Pottery Museum, Bizen City